NRL Sending Robots to Fix Satellites, Aiming for 2021 Launch
By JAMES PETERSON, Editorial Assistant
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The Naval Research Laboratory expects the first autonomous, dexterous robotic servicing of geosynchronous satellites (RSGS) in orbit by 2021, said Dr. Glen Henshaw U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, during an Office of Naval Research showcase at Sea-Air-Space 2018. With this new capability, the Navy can upgrade other spacecraft, repair and adjust satellites, move away hazards, and closely inspect spacecraft, all while in orbit.
The most important of the four uses, according to Henshaw, is upgrading the spacecraft while orbiting the Earth — a capability the Navy currently lacks. This allows the Navy to attach external payloads to satellites, much like they do with ships.
“When the Navy buys a ship, we expect the hull to last 50 years usually,” Henshaw said. “The reason we can get away with that is that we know we’re going to be able to take that ship back into port … and replace the old system with a new one. With a satellite, we can’t do that. You have to build and launch an entirely new satellite every time you want new technology in orbit.”
But with the new autonomous spacecraft, the Navy can extend the life of satellites without launching new satellites with every update.
“We’re going to have the capability of attaching new sensors and new packages to existing spacecraft, so we can fit the current national security fleet without having to launch an entirely new fleet.”
During the showcase, Dr. Henshaw played one of the demonstrations recorded in their lab back in 2008. The high school gymnasium-sized lab simulates moving and operating in orbit while the autonomous robot performs tasks it will do in space, albeit very slowly. Henshaw compared it to "watching paint dry,” but that’s just the speed at which things move in orbit.
"We did this 350 times in our lab. That’s a technology we have developed in our lab, and we are ready to go to orbit."